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Spike in Longview home fires stretches local Red Cross

By Richard Yeakley
Nov. 17, 2012 at 11 p.m.


While many East Texas volunteers headed to the Northeast to help the victims of Superstorm Sandy, the East Texas Piney Woods Chapter of the American Red Cross has been busy this month meeting needs at home.

The agency has assisted 20 local families since Nov. 1 who have lost their homes.

That number is significantly higher than an average two-week period for the organization and comes at a time when the local Red Cross' list of volunteers is limited, said Executive Director Tammy Prater.

"So often, people see the big events - and don't get me wrong, those families need help, as much as they are suffering. But the local families that lost their homes this month because of a fire are suffering the same way," Prater said.

The largest local displacement of families came Nov. 1 when a building at Regency Park Apartments in Longview was heavily damaged. Fire investigators said workers accidentally set the roof on fire while working with a torch. A dozen people who lived in the building were displaced.

John and Velma Cole were among them. The retired couple was watching TV when maintenance staff pounded on their door urging them to leave the apartment, John Cole said.

The Coles ran from their home with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

John Cole, who said he has supported the American Red Cross financially and through volunteering, said his respect for the organization grew during the days following the fire.

"They have been fantastic. It makes your heart want to tremble and tears come down your eyes with what they did for us," he said.

The American Red Cross gave the Coles a credit card pre-loaded with $625 to help them with any needs as they waited to see if any of their clothes or belongings were salvageable, John Cole said.

The couple, whose children live in East Texas, could have bought clothes and food, but in the hassle of finding a new place to live, it was a blessing not to worry about how new clothes would be paid for, Velma Cole said.

"It is a great relief. When this first happened, they were there that day. We could go that day to get something to eat, even though all we came out with was the clothes on our backs," Velma Cole said. "We could have gone out and paid for food, but it was nice we didn't have to worry about that."

Prater said the American Red Cross seeks to help everyone in their time of need, even while realizing that some are able to recover faster than others.

Help administered by the organization is on a case-by-case basis, because even if someone has a solid line of savings, a car and credit cards, if those things are lost in a fire, it may take several days for someone to back on his feet, Prater said.

"Disaster really is the great equalizer; anyone could be in their driveway in the middle of the night. The Red Cross is for everyone," Prater said.

The first priority after a disaster is to ensure people affected know where they will be sleeping and to provide food and clothing.

In the case of the Regency Park fire, the apartment complex provided a hotel room for one week for each victim as they found an open unit to move into.

An apartment official said Friday that each victim had been re-housed in a Regency Park or neighboring apartment.

Prater said the East Texas Piney Woods chapter of the American Red Cross averages helping two or three families displaced per week.

"So when you start going more than one a day, that is an increase for us," Prater said.

Longview Fire Marshal Johnny Zackary agreed, saying November has seen more than the usual number of house fires.

He said it is common to see more fires as temperatures drop, since people sometimes use inappropriate methods to heat their homes.

The average temperature for Longview in November is about 52 degrees, and the temperature in 2012 has been .8 degrees above average, said National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Omundson.

Zackary also said it was a benefit to the Longview Fire Department to be able to rely on the American Red Cross to help fire victims.

"This is an unusually high number of displacements in 15 calendar days. It's very concerning as we are just now entering the cold season," Zackary said. "We are grateful that we are able to pick up the phone and get a really strong response by Red Cross personnel. We can see the fire victims immediately be able to start a recovery period."

Prater said the local chapter of the American Red Cross always seeks monetary donations and new volunteers.

"To me, what impresses me about our volunteers and about our community is that we care about others. We want to help when there is crisis," Prater said. "We are always looking for new volunteers. We are also getting close to the time for holiday giving and year-end giving. We certainly would love for people to support us in that way."

People can donate to the American Red Cross either on its website or by mailing a donation to the local office.

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